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Black History Month: What Does It Mean to You?

March 1, 2016
Editor’s note: This week’s guest blogger is KCTS 9 Community Engagement Intern Simon Tran. Simon is passionate about community, storytelling and connecting with people. He is studying drama performance and the comparative history of ideas, with a minor in diversity, at the University of Washington. His second major, the comparative history of ideas, is an interdisciplinary humanities concentration that encompasses anthropology and sociology, among others, and centers around critical thinking and challenging the norms of thought. Coming into his senior year, the comparative history of ideas (CHID) has been an incredible framework for how he approaches storytelling and curiosity with narrative. 
 
Reflecting on Black History Month this year, the 40th anniversary of this U.S. observance, I believe it’s important to reconsider the general narrative and engagement we experience with black history. What do we know already, and what don't we know? What are the new stories and perspectives we learn about? As we continue to uncover stories of black history in the past, we should reflect on how our expanding viewpoint shapes how we think about black history in the now. 
 
Without a doubt, black history is American history, deserving to be recognized, explored, questioned and celebrated. I wanted to hear the perspectives from involved black individuals at the University of Washington. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Professor Alexes Harris in the department of sociology (my former teacher!) and Professor Megan Ming Francis in the department of political science. I was also able to talk with Mayowa Aina, a fourth-year student studying international studies and informatics with a double minor in music and the comparative history of ideas, who is the current president of the Black Students Union (BSU) at UW. 
 
Mayowa Aina, President of University of Washington’s Black Students Union (BSU). Photo courtesy of Mayowa Aina.
Historically, Black History Month is accompanied with political and social contention. Why is that? Many argue that designating one month to black history suggests that black history can be contained in only one month. Black history and identity in this country continues to be framed in a way that indicates black history is their history.
 
“I think the biggest thing is the frustration that we have a whole separate month,” says Professor Harris. “On the one hand, it’s nice we can celebrate the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States, but on the other side, it’s frustrating that our history isn’t regularly incorporated into history — in U.S. history.” She explains how black parents at her kids’ school put together something to “try and help promote something about black history ... we had to do that — it’s just a reminder that you and your history are supplemental.”
 
For Mayowa Aina, this sentiment resonates with a memory she has from the third grade during Black History Month.
 
“I decided I would do a soul project for my class, and I made a timeline for everything I could find on the Internet. So I made this timeline … and I brought it to class and showed it to my teacher … And it was at the end of the day so it was like the last five minutes so I think I got cut off by the bell or something and all the kids left and I just had my timeline.” From her perspective now, as a fourth-year in college, Mayowa believes, “Black History Month is just really a good chance to reflect and really think about blackness and what blackness means in the context of the United States in particular. [It's] an opportunity for me to think about where I am, physically; how has black history affected me here, on campus in Seattle, in Washington.” 
 
University of Washington Professor (Department of Political Science) Megan Ming Francis. Photo courtesy of Megan Ming Francis. Professor Megan Ming Francis offers another great viewpoint. “Every month for me is Black History Month,” she says. And her UW office is truly reflective of this statement. When I first came into her office, I was amazed by her incredible collection of books about critical race theory, the Civil Rights movement, black identity and race politics, to name just a few.
 
“I think it’s good that there’s a month that forces people who don’t really care about [it], to focus on aspects of black history and to at least try and celebrate it,” she says. “But I do think that things like Black History Month and days like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day are important. They’re an important part of our nation in terms of: how do we highlight the groups that are on the margins of our society?” 
 
But the lack of appreciation for minority history is tangible. At the University of Washington, the black student population composes a very small percentage of students overall.
 
“There are about 30,000 undergraduate students. About a thousand of them, or 3 percent, are black,” says Mayowa, who believes black student involvement and representation on campus matters. “I was fortunate enough to be selected as the Homecoming Queen this year, and I very intentionally wore my band uniform and I had my baseball cap on … and I had my tiara and my sash on … but I knew that that representation was so important on campus.”
 
As the BSU president, Mayowa has been very active in engaging the 11 different black organizations on campus to create community and to address the needs of the black students at UW. Mayowa also sits as a representative on a group called iEquality, the diversity committee for the informatics department that incorporates social justice into the curriculum and a more equitable admissions process. 
 
It’s important to examine how we think about black history. From my experience, our country celebrates black history, black accomplishment and black identity in a way that is very positive yet very limiting. My friend Erika Samson, a graduate student at UW, said she the only things she learned about the Civil Rights movement was how “Rosa Parks sat down and Dr. King stood up.”
 
Although that surface-level understanding of the history of blacks in America is true (Rosa Parks did sit down!), that’s all we really learn in school and and out in the world. In school, we might have one assembly during the month of February designated to review “black history.” We might watch a video about the Civil Rights movement, or learn about Thurgood Marshall or Harriet Tubman. But there is so much more than that.
 
With the new resources we have, from social media to documentaries and personal interviews available for the public, we are able to uncover the multifaceted and continuously rich narratives of what it means to be black in this country. What are aspects we don’t talk about?
 
“[In] Black History Month we talk about slavery up through the Civil Rights movement. We don’t really talk about reconstruction [or] the Harlem Renaissance, but it’s really slavery and the Civil Rights movement,” Mayowa says. We frame black history only from what happened, but not why things happened or what resulted.
 
Professor Francis’ research intersects political science, constitutional law, and African American history specifically. Her first book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, covers “the development of the NAACP’s campaigns against racial violence in the first quarter of the 20th century.” Her work investigates the NAACP’s work before the 1920s, and its political focus on legally combating “mob violence and lynchings of African Americans,” which resulted in the Civil Rights movement. Professor Francis also says, “Sometimes I propose to my students when I lecture on the Civil Rights movement in terms of- I’m the legacy of that. The only reason why I’m standing in front of you guys is because of people fought for this to happen. Less than 50 years ago. But it’s easy to just look forward and not look back.” 
 
University of Washington Professor (Department of Sociology) Alexes Harris. Photo courtesy of Alexes Harris.
For Mayowa, revisiting black history is about contextualizing and personalizing. “We talk about black people who were the first to be in white spaces; people who were the first to do whatever it is that black people have never been able to do before. That’s great, but it’s very impersonal. It doesn’t hit me in my core because I don’t really relate to it, because it happened so long ago.” Through BSU she and others created a project called “Black to Basics”, which involves a visual timeline of the history of BSU at the University of Washington campus. “Black history occurred everywhere,” Mayowa says. And it occurs always. “History is made literally every day, and because of social media we are able to celebrate it.”
 
And personalizing history is important. Being inspired and finding similar stories of people who you can see yourself reflected through is a powerful way to develop pride in who you are. Each of these women are inspired by different and sometimes underrated black figures.
 
For Alexes Harris, she remembers reading Langston Hughes’ poetry. “My dad … he just read Langston Hughes to me. He would have me read Langston Hughes out loud to him to practice. The stories, thinking about race, and I too Sing America — hearing these different words about where do we fit in? Questioning history, our role in history, our place in America, was really interesting to me.” She also mentions Jacob Lawrence, the 20th century painter who created the Migration Series portraying the great migration of African Americans to the North in the early 20th century, and how artists and activists depicted stories about empowerment and the unsung heroes. She says the visuals, the “images [by Langston Hughes and Jacob Lawrence] illustrate those images in my mind, but also learning about all the details and how it happened was really interesting to me.”
 
For Professor Francis, she is inspired by Ida B. Wells. “She was this woman who existed at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. And she didn’t care. She was just a fighter and committed to justice in a major way. [She] refused to be silenced in a world where women were silenced and especially black people were silenced.” She also lists Pauli Murray, one of the few black women who were leaders during the Civil Rights era. “She dressed like a man at a time where women wore skirts or dresses. When women had husbands, she did not. And she killed it at the law!” She also lists Melissa Harris Perry and Cornell West, who advised her in graduate school, as “huge inspiration[s] to me, and the value they bring to teaching and the commitment to the struggle and the movement of people.” 
 
For Mayowa, she instantly says, “Beyoncé, #formation,” as well as contemporary issues. But she also is inspired by Shirley Chisholm. “We had to do a biography book report [in eighth grade] and I remember picking up a book of Shirley Chisolm and thinking, ‘She has an Afro!’” Shirley Chisolm, a name I didn't recognize until Mayowa mentioned her, was the first woman to run for President in the U.S., “before Hillary or Barack [Obama]. She was like, ‘Yes, I’m black and I’m proud of that. But that’s not the only thing that I am.’” Shirley Chisolm was the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing New York. Mayowa also sees that “the greatest contribution that black people have made to American history is the establishment of culture. But the things that our culture exports to the world, there’s nothing that hasn’t been cultivated by black people: rock ’n‘ roll, jazz, hip hop, southern food — that all comes from black people.” 
 
Black History Month is celebrated every February, but I encourage you to dive deeper into our nation’s history every month. Expand your understanding of black history and identity. Celebrate the life, struggles, and accomplishments of black people in the past and the present. Conducting these interviews allowed me to learn about our history and how we can expose black history with more clarity, curiosity and conversation. How can we think about ways of incorporating Black History Month year round?
 
Though Black History Month is coming to an end, you can continue learning more about black history through a number of PBS programs, including Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
 
Watch online now:

 

 

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